Of all the recent spate of celebrity deaths, this one hits me more than the others. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Chuckie Baby. Like Bill Veeck, he was an ordinary guy who somehow found himself in the middle of a whirlwind of destiny, and managed to find a way to navigate it. He flew through the world by the seat of his pants, and he loved every minute of it.
Barris was born on June 3, 1929, in the City Of Brotherly Love. Barris actually started off at a weird intersection between music and television, as a standards and practices rep for ABC on the show American Bandstand, which, at the time, was shot in Philly. From there, he produced and wrote songs, but his most successful was a little ditty for Freddy Cannon, an infinitely charming tune called "Palisades Park." The song's success would actually become the key to Barris becoming a TV figure.
Barris wanted in on television, and he was set up to fail. ABC arranged for him to go to Los Angeles and take pitches for TV shows. However, they just gave him a room at a generic place. By this point, Barris knew he wouldn't get anyone with good stuff, they'd never come to a place like that to pitch. Using all his royalties from Palisades Park, he got a suite at a five star hotel, and he got the big fish. Barris landed deals, and everyone wondered, How'd he do that?!?
Barris eventually became part of ABC's daytime programming decsion, and that was when he became what he was. He famously btiched to his bosses about the shows being pitched and coming in to his office, and he stated that his own worst ideas were better than any of those. ABC responded by telling him to quit and become a TV producer, putting his money where his mouth is. Barris accepted the challenge, and on June 14, 1965, founded Chuck Barris Productions. Before the year was out, Barris had gotten a little show called The Dating Game, on ABC. And it was a smash. It spun everything conventionally accepted on its head. Sexual innuendos, a set decorated with a "flower power" motif, and so on, it shook up the programming world and audiences loved it.
When you're a hit, there's no stopping you. The next year, Barris got The Newlywed Game on the air. It was here that Barris demonstrated his true interest -- using television to help people have fun. Barris was asked once why The Newlywed Game didn't offer better, more valuable prizes than, say, a washer and dryer. He explained that, if the prizes were too valuable, the tone of the show changed. If couples lost a washer and dryer, they were a little disappointed, but still happy and having fun. If it was, say, a two-week vacation, couples would be furious when they lost. He wanted to keep things breezy and fun, so that was it.
Then, 1976. Barris wanted to create a variety show, and came up with The Gong Show. They shot the pilot for NBC, and Barris felt it just wasn't working. The original host of the show was John Barbour, who was actually trying to encourage real talent on the show. Barbour's reason was that he felt the show was laughing at the acts and that was cruel. Barris felt differently, that people were laughing ALONG with the performers who got to go on television and do something. Barbour walked. In order to get things done, Barris took on the role of emcee for the show. He thought it would be temporary.
Chuckie Baby became famous in his own right. Barris was actually a notorious introvert -- he was nuts (his office, instead of a giant painting of himself, had a giant blow-up of an X-ray of his lungs), but he prefered being behind the scenes. But thrust into the spotlight, his nervous tics and habits became something to celebrate. Any episode of The Gong Show, you can see the mark put on the stage where Barris was supposed to stand for the cameras. He would stammer, lose his train of thought, and nervously clap his hands. The audience responded to this last bit by clapping along with him every time. The show's performers were Everymen, while Barris himself was the Anyman.
Barris enjoyed screwing with standards and practices -- one act was just a guy who could belch at will. And after two years of constant wrangling, things finally broke down. One of the frequent panel judges was J.P. Morgan. Morgan seemed to be on a mission to try and flash the television audience. Jamie Farr, another panel judge, once said that, when people thought he was trying to wrestle with Morgan, he was actually trying to stop her from ripping her blouse open. In 1978, during a show where Farr wasn't on the panel, Gene Gene The Dancing Machine did his bit, and Morgan finally succeeded in flashing the audience. NBC blew up. They banned Morgan from ever appearing on the show again and cancelled The Gong Show. They would let the show continue through to the end of its contract, then Oscar Bravo it.
(People like to speculate that what did in the show in on NBC was The Popsicle Twins Incident. This is incorrect, although understandable. The Popsicle Twins were a couple of girls, actually just sisters a year apart, who came out dressed in orange shorts and white tank tops, and proceded to give head to a pair of orange popsicles. You could literally hear a pin drop in the audience. Barris recounted in his autobiography that he first started to realize what kind of trouble he was in when he got a call from the NYPD. It seems there was a bomb disposal class going on, and the instructor left the TV on. It didn't take long for the instructor to realize he did not have his class's attention. However, The Popsicle Twins Incident happened in 1977, almost a year before NBC dropped the axe.)
Barris, by now, had noticed how lucrative the syndicated TV market was, and he boldly decided to take The Gong Show in that direction. The last official NBC show was an act of outright defiance -- Barris wasn't the host, only appearing in an act called The Hollywood Cowboys singing "Take This Job And Shove It" (he was gonged by Jamie Farr in retaliation for all the nose jokes Barris made about him). Barris even managed to sneak J.P. Morgan on stage during the closing credits despite the ban. The Gong Show went syndicated, where it lasted for another four years.
In 1980 was when the bottom dropped out. Barris had revived The Newlywed Game and The Dating Game in syndication, and also created The $1.98 Beauty Pagent. But the risque nature of The Newlywed Game was finally getting pushback from KTLA, Barris' Los Angeles outlet for his shows and the base of operations for his productions. The station was owned by Jackie Autry, the widow of Gene Autry. She was upset at all the sexy implications of the show and resented it, to the point where she nearly kicked Barris Productions off the lot. The Newlywed Game also lost its sponsorships from Ford and Proctor And Gamble at this point due to the content. Then, Barris produced the game show Three's A Crowd, It featured a guy, his wife, and his secretary, and the women would answer questions to see who knew the husband/boss better (Barris wrote in his autobiography that he knew things were in trouble because the contestants seemed edgier and angrier than on his other shows -- this wasn't fun for them). This accomplished the rare feat of getting two polar opposite activist groups to unite against a single enemy. Both feminist groups and socially conservative groups objected to the whole set-up, prompting stations around the country to drop the show before the first season was up. The backlash spilled over and affected Barris' other shows, with The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show seeing their audiences completely crumble. The syndicator dropped Three's A Crowd before the season was over. Rating for the other shows were too low to continue production. And in 1980, for the first time since it was founded, Barris Productions didn't have a single TV show on the air.
Barris made attempts to revive his shows, but nothing took root. In 1987, Barris threw in the towel. He sold Barris Productions to Burt Sugarman and moved to France to relax the rest of his days. Those days almost ended in the 1990's when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. During the operation to remove part of his lung, he contracted an infection and spent a month in intensive care. But he pulled through. This time, there was no getting around it. Barris died of natural causes in his home in, fittingly, Palisades, New York.
Rest well, Chuckie Baby. You brought fun and laughter to millions of people. We all wish we could make that many people happy.